Text by Sarah Gilbert / Illustration by David Sparshott
It’s not on every train that you get tipsy on the tour guide’s industrial-strength Balkan slivovitz (plum brandy) and end up almost falling asleep in Tito’s bath. Then again, this is no ordinary train.
I’m on Marshal Josip Tito’s Blue Train, the Yugoslav president’s former “palace on wheels,” heralded as the world’s most luxurious train when it first took to the rails in 1959.
The last journey was in May 1980 when, following Tito’s death, the train was used to carry his body from Ljubljana to Belgrade. After that, the Blue Train was mothballed by Serbian State Railways. Until now, that is. Starting this year, tour operator Explore Montenegro is running 12-hour train rides between Belgrade and the Montenegran port city of Bar on the Adriatic Sea. I’m privileged to be travelling on the return leg, from Bar back to Belgrade.
The dramatic 476km ride takes in lakes, rivers and mountains, and no fewer than 435 bridges, including Europe’s tallest railway viaduct. It also features one of the world’s steepest stretches of track, which rises 1,000m in 70km. It is, in a word, spectacular – when you can drag your attention from the train’s beguilingly chintzy interior.
Our guide for the journey is Toma Popovic, a broad-shouldered Serb who was the youngest member of the 20 men and women selected to serve on Tito’s train during the 1970s. Popovic began as a steward working his way up to the position of chef du train. Now aged 75, he’s one of only four people still living who worked on the train. He is clearly proud of his association with Tito.
Over a leisurely lunch in the wood-panelled dining car, during which we are plied with Macedonian red wine and Popovic’s home-brewed slivovitz decanted from plastic bottles, he tells us that Tito’s favourite meal was turkey, pasta and gorgonzola. Happily, we dine rather better on veal consommé, Vojvodina pork cutlets and sticky baklava.
Above are black-and-white photographs of others who have dined in this spot before us, an array of world leaders that includes Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first leader of an independent India.
He was a “nice man to work for,” Popovic says of his former boss, which leaves rather a lot unsaid. The absolute ruler of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death, Tito was a World War II partisan leader, who developed his own brand of socialism. A master of self-promotion, he created a cult of personality within Yugoslavia that while dictatorial, was a key factor in holding together the six ethnically mixed and traditionally antagonistic republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzgovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. For three generations, there was a photograph of Tito in every school classroom. From the age of seven, kids became Tito Pioneers, swearing allegiance to their leader.
But he was also a man who enjoyed the finer things in life. With friends like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, he was fond of indulging in French wine, Scotch whisky, Cuban cigars and Italian shoes. He also had a string of extramarital affairs (he’s said to have fathered 16 children) – although if anything untoward happened on the train, Popovic isn’t telling.
English-speaking guide Nemanja Ciric leads us on a tour of the train after lunch, inviting us to admire the pale-green velvet sofas in the lounge and the red-leather chairs in the conference room embossed with the emblem of Yugoslavia. Beyond Tito’s private salon – complete with a television-sized Grundig radio that was state-of-the-art in its day – is a study and bedroom that leads into a spacious powder-blue bathroom and a connecting room diplomatically referred to as the “companion’s room”.
After the tour we are free to explore. We are asked to keep off Tito’s bed and its rather lumpy looking mattress, but some passengers take afternoon naps on the velvet couchettes, while others pose for photos at Tito’s desk, with its matching wall panel decorated with mahogany, walnut and pear marquetry. For my part, I decide to sit in the » Marshal’s bath, which is where I almost pass out from the effects of an overindulgent lunch.
By this time, the dramatic landscapes of Montenegro – the aqua-coloured Lake Skadar, the Tara River valley and the numerous vertiginous gorges above fast-flowing rivers – are all behind us. We’re now in Serbia and the landscape has changed to fields of crops with occasional pockets of tiled-roofed houses. Children wave at the train, others reach for their phones to take photos; some older people stare in disbelief seeing this potent symbol of their past back on the rails once more.
In the time of the Marshal, there were as many as eight towns in Yugoslavia named after Tito and the train passes through two: Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, which used to be known as Titograd, and Titovo Uzice in Serbia, now just plain Uzice. In 1943, Uzice was the first European territory to liberate itself from the Nazis, thrusting Tito onto the global stage.
On 6 May 1980, two days after his death, mourners lined the tracks and filled the railway stations to pay their last respects. For Popovic, it was the worst journey of his life. Two days later in Belgrade, there was the largest state funeral of its day: 138 countries were represented, with four kings, six princes, 31 presidents and 22 prime ministers in attendance.
The sun is setting as we pull into Belgrade station. Displayed outside the station building is the steam locomotive that originally pulled the train, surrounded by Serbian tourists. There’s still a degree of nostalgia for era of the “benevolent dictator,” a time of relative prosperity, peace and equality.
Even catching a glimpse of the Blue Train is an event for many Serbs. The cult lives on.
Explore Montenegro offers four-, six- and seven-day tours with one day aboard the train and four-star accommodation in Montenegro from £399/NOK3,770 per person. Train-only tickets are available from £99/NOK935, including lunch.
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When you get to Montenegro
Bay of Kotor
Off the coast of Perast, the bay is home to Our Lady of the Rocks, an artificial islet created by seamen sinking old ships loaded with rocks. The largest building here is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin (above), which can be visited by boat.
Durmitor National Park
One of four national parks in Montenegro, Durmitor has some of the deepest gorges in Europe and was accepted as a World Heritage Site in 1980.
Another islet, south of Budva, St Stephen was one of the stops made by Queen Elizabeth II and Sophia Loren on their trips to Yugoslavia. It’s now a luxury hotel run by Aman Resorts.